Closet Writing/Gay Reading is an excellent example of how a thoughtful critic can discuss primary texts in theoretically sophisticated ways without slighting either the texts or theory. With this book, James Creech makes important contributions to the art of critical writing, to literary criticism, to gay studies, and to balancing theoretical inquiry with what can only be called respect for the primary text, in this case Melville’s Pierre. Rather than murder to dissect, Creech reads to give life to gay theory and to Pierre.
Roughly the first half of the book is a discussion of “Lesbian and Gay Literary Theory Today.” For example, Creech claims in an appreciative discussion of Barbara Johnson’s classic essay on Billy Budd that the essay does not allow “any contingency in the conditions for its insights.” Creech is less going after Johnson than noting how gay readings have been affected most adversely by the so-called objective or dispassionate criticism of the past where gay readings were neither admitted nor kept out, but simply were not allowed to exist in the critical world. That is but one reason Creech argues that “[i]dentification . . . may be the response which is . . . culturally and politically needed at this time when lesbian and gay people are . . . beginning publicly to assume their place and worth within the culture which they have contributed so significantly to producing.” Creech also examines some positions of David Halperin, John Boswell, and Michel Foucault, among others, to construct and ultimately defend his belief that reading from an “identifcatory, erotic response . . . might set us up at least to look for—and perhaps [End Page 921] even to recognize—traces of unrepresentative consciousness allied with abnormal sexual meaning.” Creech calls this reading “camp reading” and uses it to justify and make necessary our taking another look at Melville’s Pierre. His chapter explaining how he goes “From Kitsch Attribution to Camp Recognition” is one of the most original approaches to “camp” (in a number of meanings) I have ever come across, and serves Melville, literary theory, and reading theory well.
Equally provocative is Creech’s chapter on “Nineteeth-Century Homosexual Expression” in which Creech explores questions about gay authorial being and obligation in that time, questions impossible to answer, as Creech acknowledges, but worth asking anyway. Such questions center around, for example, stylistic norms in prose and conduct, and the behaviors of homosexuals who did or did not react to certain cultural stimuli. Again, Creech serves his subjects—Melville, nineteenth century culture, and cultural readings—as he provides a model for writers seeking ways to provoke complicated, unsolvable historical questions that are inevitably a part of any act of sophisticated literacy.
The second half of Creech’s book is devoted to his “camp” reading of Melville. This reading relies on a variety of strategies (identification, extra-textual consultation, etc.) to offer Pierre as a gay novel, closeted to straight culture, uncloseted to the “sentimental” reader who would most likely be gay. Creech’s argument is completely convincing even as, or especially as, it questions itself. Again, this writing is at once about its subject and about its own arguments, but Creech is not at all precious in his post-modernism. The “Afterword,” an exchange with David Halperin, represents further thought on the nature of reading, writing, and living homosexually.
My only quarrel is that for all of Creech’s sophisticated reading(s) and his excellent prose, Pierre is still Pierre, a flawed novel and, at times, an undeniably dull read. Thanks to Creech, we may understand Pierre better as a gay text, or any other kind of text, period. But it is still Pierre just as Forster’s Maurice is still Maurice, which is a lot less than Howard’s End or A Room with a View.
Nonetheless, Creech makes reading about Pierre an exhilarating intellectual and emotional experience. After reading this book, I am certainly convinced of the importance of James Creech as a theorist even as I remain unsold on Pierre. Closet Writing/Gay Reading is mandatory for [End Page 922...